In 1993, Australia was weathering its way through the recession that our Prime Minister Paul Keating said “we had to have”. After the historic stock market collapse of October 1987, unemployment in Australia was peaking at 11 percent and the standard variable mortgage interest rate was an eye-watering 17 per cent…yes three times what it is today!
Such is the perverse self confidence of 30 somethings that, despite this bleak economic outlook, my wife and I decided to start a communications consultancy called Peter Fuller & Associates on July 1, 1993. The creative team we have today would have come up with something sexier as a brand, but at the time all I had to trade on was my name…and a white Falcon sedan with a car phone.
I remember standing in my corrugated iron shed-office in the middle of our Barossa vineyard on Day One wondering what next. I had secured a 12 month contract with my previous employer of around $60,000 a year. Then the phone rang and a former colleague offered me work that amounted to $30,000 a year. We had just grown the size of our new business by 50% in less than an hour.
And so we were away.
It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed in 30 years. My first computer was an Apple LCII with 4 MB RAM and 40 MB of storage. It cost about $1,200. Today I have an iPhone 14 that has 6GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage…and it cost about $1200. And it takes photographs. Monitors my steps. And counts my many golf shots.
In 1993 there was no internet, and so no email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. The invention of Google was still five years away and while we had brick-like Nokia’s, the game changing iPhone wouldn’t be released for another ten years.
Life, in hindsight, was remarkably peaceful.
As a fledgling PR man, my media releases were typed, printed and then patiently faxed to journalists. Photographs were shot on film and printed on glossy paper and sent to the media by post. News came from transistor radios and 24 inch TVs and people read newspapers over breakfast…at home, over their kitchen table, getting ink on their white Pelaco shirt cuffs. People drank Lipton tea or International Roast coffee. Trendsetters had Bodum plungers. Yes you could get an exotic cappuccino at Italian cafes if you were so inclined, but people didn’t queue like lemmings every morning for soy lattes or triple mochas or piccolos, as though their lives depended on a caffeine hit. In fact they were more inclined to have a Marlboro or Benson and Hedges to get their day off to a good start.
Water came out of a tap not a plastic bottle.
To do business we did lunch, lengthy affairs that sometimes didn’t finish until dark. But I maintain it built better personal relationships than any SMS or Tweet.
But some things never change.
After Paul Keating and the ALP won the “unwinnable federal election” in March 1993, he announced the appointment of a Republic Advisory Committee, chaired by Malcolm Turnbull. Thirty years later we have just crowned a new King of Australia.
In August HMAS Collins, the first Australian-built and designed Collins class submarine was launched. Today, while MPs drive to Parliament House in 2023 BMWs, our submariners still go to work at 500 metres below sea level in the 30 year old Collins class – the equivalent of a Holden Commodore – as we wait for an AUKUS built nuclear replacement. (Note: we no longer have Holden Commodores or a car industry!)
In November 1993 an 18-year-old Aboriginal dancer Daniel Alfred Yock died shortly after being arrested by Queensland Police Service officers in Brisbane. Around 470 more Aboriginal people have died in custody since the Royal Commission in 1991…more than 100 in 2021-22.
The Native Title Act was passed on December 21 after marathon debates and numerous amendments. The Federal Opposition Leader John Hewson declared that the legislation was “monstrous”, while Premiers Jeff Kennett (Victoria) and Richard Court (WA) stated that it would be unworkable. I hear echoes of this during the current Voice debate which makes me sad that people don’t study history. Over the last 30 years the Act has allowed Aboriginal people to claim back their original land following the Mabo ruling. There have been 213 peacefully negotiated determinations…and the sky hasn’t fallen in.
And on a lighter note, Shane Warne, bowled his first delivery of Ashes cricket, described as the “Ball of the Century”, to belligerent Englishman Mike Gatting to become an Australian legend. Today he is a second rate eponymous tele-movie star. On the opposite side of the sport ledger the Socceroos lost to Argentina 0–1 in Buenos Aires thereby failing to qualify for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and breaking the hearts of a fledgling “football” following cohort in Australia.
Exciting and terrifying
Thirty years of business is simply one exciting and terrifying year, multiplied by 30.
The thing about being one of Australia’s 3 million SMEs (those with less than 200 staff) is that once committed, you have to hang in there for the scary ride. You sacrifice everything to keep the wheels turning, people employed and suppliers paid. You cannot step off.
I remember reading a framed quote on the wall of historic wine company Yalumba’s Boardroom soon after starting our little enterprise. The Managing Director Robert Hill Smith had just bought out dozens of family members, to own Yalumba with his brother Sam. He said he didn’t sleep for a year with those exorbitant interest rates threatening to bring him undone.
The quote from US President Calvin Coolidge said:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Robert has proved this adage true time and time again as he celebrates 174 years of making wine at Yalumba this year.
Apart from this consistent drip feed of dogged determination, a business will only thrive on a diet of innovation. Without re-inventing and refreshing our offer we become stale and lifeless. Without the hybrid vigour of new staff we lose drive and joy and miss opportunities we never knew existed.
Our evolution from the brass-name-plate professional services style of Peter Fuller & Associates to our contemporary agency identity of Fuller Brand Communication, started in the early 2000s. I had never been completely satisfied with offering the single dimension service of public relations, relying as it did on the promiscuous goodwill of newspaper editors to publish stories about my clients. It was hard to measure and even harder to prove success.
But I liked what I saw overseas, where in the wake of the Mad Men era, advertising, design and PR agencies were gobbling up each other, to create full service firms. The idea of creating an integrated brand communication agency where we could customise a solution by combining a range of services that delivered measurable results for our clients, really appealed to me. It was also a new idea in Australia where advertising and PR were jealously guarded in traditionally lucrative but very conservative silos.
Through the early 2000s we started adding a range of new in-house services based on a solid core of well researched strategy. We added branding, design, events, digital marketing, website development, SEO and SME, advertising, video content and more recently motion graphics.
That evolution continues, especially in the digital space, and will go on changing. But I’m delighted that our core skill of storytelling – through long and short form copywriting, journalism and video – remains vitally important to our clients.
The most significant change in the last five years has been the commitment by our family to turn Fuller into a second generation business. Will, who joined the company full time in 2006 (a year after his wife Liv joined us in 2005) and our daughter Kate, who returned from overseas in 2014, have been charting a new and exciting course for Fuller Brand Communication. The energy and creativity they generate, with our talented staff, is rewarding and fulfilling for Kathryn and I.
An example of this new direction is our decision several years ago to formalise our long-standing commitment to working with not-for-profits and giving back to our community, an ethos that Kathryn started back in 1999. We launched a Fuller for Good strategy which resulted in Carbon Neutral and BCorp certification in 2021 – a first for an Australian marketing agency. This has resulted in all sorts of culturally uplifting staff initiatives from recycling and transitioning to electric cars to wellness programs and volunteering.
We have also completed our Reconciliation Action Plan which has been approved by Reconciliation Australia, and using this as our North Star we aim to make a real difference by mentoring and supporting young Aboriginal people.
Under Will’s bold leadership, we have now grown to become a serious creative player not just in SA but nationally. We sit on major government panels, we work with some of the state’s biggest corporates and not for profits and we develop campaigns that create real change for South Australia such as the New State of Mind immigration campaign, the Kangaroo Island “Unfiltered” campaign and the SATC Rise up for the River campaign.
All of these campaigns – and the thousands of other creative behaviour change projects we have enjoyed delivering for our much loved clients – have one identifiable signature.
They make you feel: joy, excitement, empathy, happiness, courage, pride, purpose.
So after 30 years of persistence and innovation and re-invention – and I have to say a hell of a lot of fun – from humble beginnings in a shed in the Barossa to a business of 32 wonderfully passionate people with a new office in Sydney and a client reach from coast to coast, we are now the Home to Brands with Feeling.
I read recently that “leadership is about strategically and intentionally disappointing people at a rate that they can sustain.” I’m sure there is some good thinking in this justification of taking the hard decisions, by Social Leadership Australia.
But I passionately disagree.
Leadership to me is the flip side: it is strategically and intentionally exciting people at a rate they can barely sustain.
That’s what we want to keep delivering to our clients.
And that feels good.